The Sweet Spot: When Privates Go Public

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Barbie Blend by Thomas Forsythe

In 2003, Mattel, the maker of Barbie, sued Utah artist Thomas Forsythe for using Barbie dolls in photographs that depicted the toy naked and being assaulted by kitchen appliances. Time and time again, Mattel has engaged in litigation against different artists, including a Canadian stripper. In most cases, the artists won the lawsuits. Free speech, you know. This makes it even stranger that the New York Jewish Museum has removed an art installation due to the threat of a lawsuit. Of course, the issue was privacy and not trademark infringement.

The debate over how public our lives are in the age of the Internet rages on. Throw in some gayness and the Holocaust, and high-level controversy erupts. In May, San Francisco artist Mark Adelman's piece Stelen (Columns), a series of photographic panels depicting men posing in front of Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, was removed by the museum. Interestingly, it was not the Holocaust that caused the uproar; it was the men.

Adelman used, without permission, the profile pictures of members of the public website gayromeo.com. When the group show, "Composed: Identity, Politics, Sex," opened in December 2011, the museum's press release described Adelman's installation as an exploration of "the provocative transformation of a site of reverence into a social space where public remembrance collides with private desires."

Adelman himself describes the piece as a collection of images, which draws "connections between longing, death, and eroticism while calling into question the in/ability to memorialize." He also states on his website that "any image will be removed from the series upon request." That offer however, was not enough for Tim Rooks, who threatened to sue the museum and Adelman for using his image.

I asked Adelman for his thoughts on the issue of privacy. "It's my understanding as an artist that an image that is posted to the Internet in 2012 is not private. Control over the image is lost when it goes online," he says. "I think social networking and dating sites have blurred lines between private and public. The concept of privacy in general in regard to technology has become fairly antiquated. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but more so an observation as to how we currently live. Culturally speaking, I think we have not quite caught up psychologically to what the implications are in regard to that."

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Image from Marc Adelman's Stelen (Columns)

Adelman has not yet been sued, but the damage has already been done. His work was removed from the museum and the space was filled with another artist's work. According to a statement released by the museum and quoted in a New York Times article, the work was removed due to receiving a number of complaints from the men featured. "Their comments focused on privacy issues -- that they were depicted in the artwork without their consent -- and possible, significant anti-gay backlash to which they might be subjected," the museum said.

And that is not an minor concern. It is one thing to out oneself on a dating site, and quite another to be outed as gay in public spaces and on non-dating websites. No abuse as a result of the show has been reported, but the museum stated, "We are discussing multiple complex issues of privacy, privacy expectations regarding photos made available on social media, personal safety, and the consequences of image appropriation in the digital age."

In response, Adelman insists that "there were options that were not considered." He would have happily removed any image or left blank spaces on the wall where images had been removed because of complaints. He believes that there should have been a dialogue about whether complete removal of the piece was necessary. The piece was compelling in part, Adelman says, because of evolving questions about the privacy rights of people who post images of themselves online.

Maya Benton agrees, and defended Adelman in a recent article on Tabletmag.com: "It's hard to imagine how a fully clothed portrait of a man standing in front of a deconstructivist memorial sculpture in Berlin, posted on a site that requires no membership fee and has tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors at any given moment, was somehow an invasion of his privacy."

Benton also chastises the museum for missing an opportunity for expression. "The intersection of photography, the Internet, and appropriation of other people's likeness raises complicated legal and ethical questions.... Ironically, Adelman's work, which astutely grapples with questions concerning the conflated spheres of public and private life that are at the heart of the objections raised by Rooks, could have provided a springboard for addressing these very current issues."

Very true indeed.

Despite all the hubbub, Adelman is not discouraged. He is continuing to explore controversial themes through film, video, and photography. Currently he is working on a piece that explores the relationship between contemporary queer life and the cultural history of HIV/AIDS. "I've been thinking quite a bit about how younger generations of queers relate to the very traumatic impact of AIDS," he says.

In this age of seeming endless possibility for personality proliferation, we want to simultaneously be seen and yet be protected. We hunger for connection and attention but we grow ever paranoid about being exposed. We want to be out there and also inside with the curtains closed.

As a person who once felt so invisible and anonymous, I developed a fear of manholes. I was worried that if I fell into the sewer one day and was eaten by the alligators, nobody would ever know what had happened to me. It is now a comfort to have so many ways to keep connections alive. I, for one, would be more than happy to have my image used in an art piece. Hint. Hint.


The Sweet Spot is a blog column about alternative sexuality by Ginger Murray, who is also the editor of Whore! magazine. Check back next week for more.

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